Marcus Paige could only look at the sky as he fell into the arms of Eric Hoots, North Carolina’s video coordinator. No hug could compensate, nothing could erase the sense of loss. Maybe someday he’ll recognize he was part of one of the great basketball games ever played. But not now.
After Paige’s off-balance, leaning 3-pointer tied the score with 4.7 seconds to go, Villanova’s Kris Jenkins delivered the ultimate answer with a right wing 3-pointer as time expired. The four-year quest for a title by Paige and Brice Johnson fell short by the smallest of margins, 77-74.
For all the talk about toughness this season, for all the inner grit the Tar Heels summoned in March and April, they looked to have finally run into a tougher team – only to prove that they were just as tough after all. Down 10 with less than six minutes to go, Paige’s 3-pointer sent seat cushions flying into the air throughout NRG Stadium, only for a different kind of celebration to erupt moments later.
“I told the team when I made the shot and we (were going) to overtime, we got 4.7 seconds to play defense and this game is ours,” Paige said. “Because no matter what, we were going to win the overtime. That’s just how this game was going to go.”
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While he held Paige in his arms, after racing across the court from his seat in the stands, Hoots could only tell him how sorry he was.
“What he’s meant to the program, I absolutely hate it for him and our seniors,” Hoots said. “They deserved this. You can’t find a better person than Marcus. This shouldn’t happen to him.”
In front of representatives from North Carolina’s previous five champions, from Lennie Rosenbluth (as always) to Michael Jordan, what Roy Williams has called one of his favorite teams was denied a sixth NCAA title and a third under Williams in the past 12 years.
For Jenkins, the adoptive brother of North Carolina guard Nate Britt, to hit the final shot only heightened the sense of loss.
“He had a big-time shot to win the game,” Britt said. “I’m going to be happy for him for that, but at the same time this hurts. It makes it a whole lot worse. Villanova had a great game, but for him to hit the shot, this is bragging rights for the rest of our lives.”
North Carolina staked out a halftime lead based on some uncharacteristic pinpoint 3-point shooting but struggled to get the ball inside against Villanova’s aggressive denial defense. The Wildcats, meanwhile, were getting inside just fine by, among other tactics, posting up point guard Ryan Arcidiacono.
North Carolina led with 15 minutes to go when Villanova started shooting like the Wildcats had against Oklahoma and the Tar Heels’ 3s stopped falling. The Villanova lead got to 10 before North Carolina whittled it down to nothing, finally, on Paige’s shot – the third of four straight clutch offensive possessions by the Tar Heels that saw Paige score eight points and Johnson two.
The seniors got them within sight of the finish, only to be so cruelly diverted. Isaiah Hicks appeared to be late getting out on Jenkins, and given a clean look Jenkins never flinched. The horn sounded on North Carolina’s season as the ball descended from the top of its arc, clearly headed for the net.
“I’ve had some really, really good teams, and some really, really good players,” Williams said. “I’ve never been as proud of a group as I am of this group right now.”
North Carolina’s entire weekend had a sense of finality about it, in part because Johnson and Paige had given so much to North Carolina, endured so much during their careers, had spent four years building toward this moment. But there was also, unavoidably, the NCAA’s investigation hanging overhead.
There may not be a soul alive who at this moment knows how things will turn out, given the unprecedented nature of the allegations and the NCAA’s uncertain jurisdiction, but despite Williams’ protests to the contrary, men’s basketball was specifically mentioned as a program that benefited from the impermissible academic assistance.
These players didn’t have anything to do with what went on for far too long at North Carolina, but of course there’s no way to untangle the two. No one knows whether this was not just Paige and Johnson’s last shot at a title, but perhaps North Carolina’s last for a while.
Even worse, the Tar Heels, having come this far, will forever be reminded of just how close they came.
“It’s going to be impossible not to see that shot,” Paige said. “It’s one of the great shots in NCAA history, a buzzer-beater in a championship game. I’m going to see it for the rest of my life and it’s going to hurt every time.”
Luke DeCock: 919-829-8947, email@example.com, @LukeDeCock